Hedonic adaptation is the observed psychological tendency to revert back to prior levels of happiness soon after experiencing something pleasurable. The psychologists Brickman and Campbell began studying this phenomenon scientifically in the 1970s, calling it the Hedonic Treadmill. Hedonic adaptation accounts for our tendency to overestimate how happy pleasurable experiences will make us, and the fact that we tend to maintain a relatively stable level of happiness regardless of our material circumstances. It also explains our unfortunate human habit of taking what we have for granted.
Even though the Hedonic Treadmill was scientifically observed in recent history, it turns out that Kant possessed a remarkably similar insight into human psychology, simultaneously defining hedonic adaptation and changing the course of one man's life in an impromptu late night meeting in 1789.
Karamzin was enmeshed in a personal spiritual crisis; he had profound religious and moral doubts that he hoped Kant might be able to help him work out. Kant was an established scholar during the late 18th Century thanks to his formidable contributions to ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
After dinner Karamzin went off in search of the street where Kant lived. He was deeply embarrassed at the notion of just showing up on Kant's doorstep without a letter of introduction - an important formality in those days among the nobility for people who did not know each other personally. But, "He who dares, wins," Karamzin wrote of the experience in his diary, "and so the door of the philosopher's house opened before me."
You May Call it What You Like, But It Exists
"What I have written does not appeal to all," Kant said. "Very few love the deep metaphysical speculation with which I have busied myself." The two men talked late into the night. Karamzin took copious notes so that he would remember everything of their discussion, but what stood out most among Kant's remarks was about the nature of happiness:
"Give a man everything he wants and at that moment, everything will not be everything...When I contemplate the joys I have experienced in my life I find little pleasure; but when I contemplate the instances where I have acted in accordance with the moral law engraved in my heart, I feel the purest joy. I speak of the moral law. Others call it conscience. You may call it what you like, but it exists. I have lied, no man knows it...But when all is said and done reason commands us to believe in it." 
Kant's statement here is a powerful one, simultaneously touching on human psychology, ethics, natural law, and what it really takes to be happy in life.
We Are Not Born for Pleasure
The word hedonic in hedonic treadmill comes from hedonism, or the supposition that pleasure is the chief good in life. Variations of this philosophy were put forth by Aristippus (the Cyrenaics) and Epicurus in ancient Greece. But we have to wonder if we are really only made to enjoy pleasant experiences. Cicero offers a persuasive rebuttal of such a position in De Finibus:
Just as the horse is designed by nature for running, the ox for ploughing, and the dog for hunting, so man, as Aristotle observes, is born for two purposes, thought and action: he is as it were a mortal God. The Cyrenaics held on the contrary that this godlike animal came into being, like some dull, half-witted sheep, in order to feed and to enjoy the pleasure of procreation,—a view that seems to me the climax of absurdity. So much in answer to Aristippus, who considers pleasure in the only sense in which we all of us employ the term to be not merely the highest but the sole pleasure that exists. However, as I said, Aristippus is wrong. Neither man’s bodily conformation nor his surpassing mental faculty of reason indicates that he was born for the sole purpose of enjoying pleasure.
In contrast with hedonia, eudaimonia is a sense of contentment, flow or flourishing that we get from simply being a good person; by making positive moral choices and contributing to society in some constructive way. Kant followed the eudamonic traditions of his predecessors, including Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Stoics, who argued that only virtue is necessary for happiness. By virtue, Kant meant personal qualities and actions which do not violate the rights of others.
Getting Off the Hedonic Treadmill
“Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only,” Kant states in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. He thought that moral duties depend on a basic human rationality. What he called the categorical imperative is the basic form of the moral law that he referred to in his conversation with Karamzin.
So, what important lessons can we learn about happiness from Kant? First, we need to wonder if defining our happiness in terms of hedonia as many people tend to do - by seeking out pleasurable experiences in life - is really serving us so well. Considering that rates of mental illnesses are running at all time highs in many countries, we might be better served by a more philosophically sophisticated definition of happiness, one which takes the hedonic treadmill effect into account.
Hedonism is self-defeating. You keep having to earn more and spend more, achieve more, and constantly seek out new pleasant experiences in order to stay happy. It's like a hamster running on a wheel - you keep expending energy but you never reach your destination. You remain dependent on something external to yourself for fulfillment.
So maybe Kant has a point. Lasting happiness doesn't come from enjoying ourselves, but from following our conscience; being a decent person, working to improve ourselves, and contributing our unique talents to the world. Karamzin likely took Kant's advice since he considered their meeting a major turning point in his life. He went on to become a successful writer, poet and historian.
1. Gulyga, A. (2012). Immanuel Kant: His Life and Thought. Birkhauser: Boston. 189.
2. Ibid., 190
3. Ibid., 190
4.Cicero, M. (2014) Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Amazon Digital Services LLC. De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum. II. 13:39.
5. Kant, I. (2002). Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Arnulf Zweig, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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